It’s all happening. Still.

10 02 2016

While working on those entangled branches for the past few days, I listen to podcasts on the ute radio that I’ve downloaded over the past 12 to 18 months.  It suddenly hit me that the three people whose work I follow and respect the most are women’s. I can’t help wondering why this is.  Could women be actually cleverer than men?  Are they most able to think into the future?

Susan Krumdieck is the engineer with more degrees than a thermometer plus a PhD, Nicole Foss whom I think can match Susan’s pedigree but has additional expertise in economic matters, and Gail Tverberg, the actuary with the uncanny ability to analyse what’s going on and explain it in a way most people should understand…… the only male standout for me is Chris Martenson, though I think his website is too much about how to stay rich in the collapse rather than how to survive it….

A couple of days ago, not one but two really good articles landed in my news feed commenting on how the collapse of the price of oil is going to cause mayhem this year, and is a clear sign of diminishing returns.  One was by Gail, the other quoted her….

Nicole has written a long article which was published in three parts over at the Automatic earth, I highly recommend it.  Nicole’s article being almost book length, I will leave it to you to follow the link and read it yourself.  Gail’s article, for me, begins with…:

the effects of not having enough energy flows may spread more widely than the individual plant or animal that weakens and dies. If the reason a plant dies is because the plant is part of a forest that over time has grown so dense that the plants in the understory cannot get enough light, then there may be a bigger problem. The dying plant material may accumulate to the point of encouraging forest fires. Such a forest fire may burn a fairly wide area of the forest. Thus, the indirect result may be to put to an end a portion of the forest ecosystem itself.

How should we expect an economy to behave over time? The pattern of energy dissipated over the life cycle of a dissipative system will vary, depending on the particular system. In the examples I gave, the pattern seems to somewhat follow what Ugo Bardi calls a Seneca Cliff.

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

The Seneca Cliff pattern is so-named because long ago, Lucius Seneca wrote:

It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.

This is doubly interesting, for me at least, because it appears that oil, and energy production generally, may be acting just like the above cliff….

Figure 6 shows that the FSU’s consumption of energy products started falling precipitously in 1991, the year of the collapse–very much a Seneca Cliff type of decline.

Figure 5. Former Soviet Union energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2015.

Gail explains how so many believe the wrong views of how the economy works..

The Standard Wrong Belief about the Physics of Energy and the Economy

There is a standard wrong belief about the physics of energy and the economy; it is the belief we can somehow train the economy to get along without much energy.

In this wrong view, the only physics that is truly relevant is the thermodynamics of oil fields and other types of energy deposits. All of these fields deplete if exploited over time. Furthermore, we know that there are a finite number of these fields. Thus, based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the amount of free energy we will have available in the future will tend to be less than today. This tendency will especially be true after the date when “peak oil” production is reached.

According to this wrong view of energy and the economy, all we need to do is design an economy that uses less energy. We can supposedly do this by increasing efficiency, and by changing the nature of the economy to use a greater proportion of services. If we also add renewables (even if they are expensive) the economy should be able to get along fine with very much less energy.

These wrong views are amazingly widespread. They seem to underlie the widespread hope that the world can reduce its fossil fuel use by 80% between now and 2050 without badly disturbing the economy. The book 2052: A Forecast for the Next 40 Years by Jorgen Randers seems to reflect these views. Even the “Stabilized World Model” presented in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. seems to be based on naive assumptions about how much reduction in energy consumption is possible without causing the economy to collapse.

It’s exactly what George Monbiot either can’t understand, or refuses to see….

So there must be another story.

A monster called ‘diminishing returns’

There is, and it’s a rather grim energy fairy tale. This one shows how the world’s economy depends on the quality of energy burned, and not the amount of money spent. When economies spend cheap oil, GDP rises; when they switch to costly and unconventional stuff, growth comes to a screeching halt.

In this unfolding story, cheap credit played a big role. It allowed an industry to carelessly borrow trillions to chase ultra-expensive and risky resources such as bitumen and shale oil.

An energy industry laden with toxic debt is now earning less money than what it costs to shovel bitumen or frack shale. And this kind of debt is not going to end well for financial markets. Or for ordinary people.

But the darkest character in this fairy tale is the monster called diminishing returns.

On a diet of cheap oil, the world financial system grew on energy surpluses like a wildfire dines on trees in a forest.

But no more. The cheap stuff is gone, and companies are now frantically fracking North Dakota at a cost of $60 a barrel or mining northern Alberta’s heavy bitumen at costs as high as $80 a barrel. With oil at $30 a barrel, many companies are, as respected Houston analyst Art Berman recently put it, “losing their asses.”

Diminishing returns explain why. Imagine a 20-year-old vehicle that now costs more money to maintain than it does to drive. Every time the owner pours more cash and energy into the clunker, the benefits and rewards keep shrinking. An old car can be a treadmill into poverty.

In a 2014 paper for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, David Murphy, an energy expert at St. Lawrence University, chronicles what diminishing returns really mean in energy terms.

For every barrel of energy invested in global oil production, 17 are now extracted and turned into wealth. (Nearly 100 years ago, one barrel of investment yielded 100 barrels more, a cornucopia that built the global economy.)

But the industry must now drill deeper and deeper into ugly reservoirs and then fracture them apart to capture molecules of gas or oil. As a consequence, U.S. oil production yields only 11 barrels for every barrel invested, and that number is fast declining. Ultra-heavy bitumen and other unconventional hydrocarbons capture returns of less than 10 and in many cases as low as three.

Energy resources that deliver such paltry returns are civilization shrinkers. They cannibalize other resources and offer no energy surplus.

Enjoy your homework…… I’ve got things to do to escape this predicament!

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Programmed to ignore

24 04 2015

I guess many of my readers also follow Tom Murphy’s marvellous blog ‘Do the Math’ which until his last post where he shortened it to DtM I had not realised has the same initials as mine…!  Now I’ve known for some time that my Myers-Briggs personality trait is INTJ, but until reading Tom’s latest post, I had no idea of the repercussions of having this trait was, let alone the impact of having everyone else who is not INTJ.  Nor the impact of the fact that likely not one single person running the world is either.

To outsiders, INTJs may appear to project an aura of “definiteness”, of self-confidence. This self-confidence, sometimes mistaken for simple arrogance by the less decisive, is actually of a very specific rather than a general nature; its source lies in the specialized knowledge systems that most INTJs start building at an early age. When it comes to their own areas of expertise — and INTJs can have several — they will be able to tell you almost immediately whether or not they can help you, and if so, how. INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don’t know.

INTJs are perfectionists, with a seemingly endless capacity for improving upon anything that takes their interest. What prevents them from becoming chronically bogged down in this pursuit of perfection is the pragmatism so characteristic of the type: INTJs apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion “Does it work?” to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms. This in turn produces an unusual independence of mind, freeing the INTJ from the constraints of authority, convention, or sentiment for its own sake.

That’s me pretty much down to a T.  This Wikipedia page classifies us INTJ people as Mastermind Architects….  I like that.  A640px-CognitiveFunctions lot actually!  Being a Mastermind goes well with being in control of my Matrix!

But the true master discovery here is that the vast majority of people who visit our sites are INTJ.

About a year ago, Tom tells us, a friend shared with me a graphic from an informal survey on the Peak Prosperity website. This is Chris Martenson’s site, which hosts a “Crash Course” consisting of 4.6 hours of quality video content describing why we should worry that tomorrow may not be bigger than today, and why the growth phase may be just that. As a related aside, I once did a podcast interview for Chris Martenson.

The Peak Prosperity site visitors probably have a lot of overlap with Do the Math readers: the fundamental concern is the same. These are people who are—by and large—not content with extrapolation of the here-and-now into tomorrow. We think there will be fundamental changes in how the full Earth operates compared to our frontier days of resource exploitation in an empty Earth. In many cases, there are compelling calculations to motivate concern. Rather than trying to predict a dire future, my goal in “Did the Math” was to build a plausible case for things going off the rails in the desperate hope that recognition of this possibility would spur action now to steer clear of this potential pitfall (thereby making me wrong, in a happy way). It’s trying to expose a blind spot—a sleeping dragon.

But that blind spot may be stamped into human nature. So what about this survey?

Tom’s latest entry has loads of information about his survey results, too long and complicated to duplicate here, so I urge you to read his site for all the amazing fine print and statistical analysis only an INTJ physicist (which I now know my son is also!) would persevere with….  Tom’s conclusions, however, are scary.  We will almost certainly fail, as a civilisation, to act on the coming predicaments, because most of us are not INTJ and are therefore programmed to ignore all the prognostications within the contents of sites like ours.  “As a cerebral type,” Tom writes, “it gives me some satisfaction to have insight into how and why we may fail. If the world falls apart before I die, at least I’ll have some inkling as to what’s going on, and won’t be as psychologically shattered by the affair. But I’ll be one of a pitifully small number, I’m afraid.”

So there you have it….  we are on our own.  Maybe all the world’s INTJ’s should head for Tasmania, turf out anyone who is not (or the closely allied INTP/INFJ like my dear better half!) and mount its future defence against the poor souls who simply don’t make the grade!  One more link to Tom’s brilliant work…

I would love my own readers to do their own personality test and report back in the comments to see if we fare similarly, because it’s a fascinating experiment if nothing else.





The collapse of oil prices and energy security in Europe

17 11 2014

This is a written version of the brief talk I gave at the hearing of the EU parliament on energy security in Brussels on Nov 5, 2014. It is not a transcription, but a shortened version that tries to maintain the substance of what I said. In the picture, you can see the audience and, on the TV screen, yours truly taking the picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me say that it is a pleasure and an honour to be addressing this distinguished audience today. I am here as a faculty member of the University of Florence and as a member of the Club of Rome, but let me state right away that what I will tell you are my own opinions, not necessarily those of the Club of Rome or of my university.

This said, let me note that we have been discussing so far with the gas crisis and the Ukrainian situation, but I have to alert you that there is another ongoing crisis – perhaps much more worrisome – that has to do with crude oil. This crisis is being generated by the rapid fall in oil prices during the past few weeks. I have to tell you that low oil prices are NOT a good thing for the reasons that I will try to explain. In particular, low oil prices make it impossible for many oil producers to produce at a profit and that could generate big problems for the world’s economy, just as it already happened in 2008.

So, let me start with an overview of the long term trends of oil prices. Here it is, with data plotted from the BP site.

These data are corrected for inflation. You see strong oscillations, but also an evident trend of growth. Let’s zoom in, to see the past thirty years or so:

These data are not corrected for inflation, but the correction is not large in this time range. Prices are growing, but they stabilized during the past 4-5 years at somewhere around US 100 $ per barrel. Note the fall during the past month or so. I plotted these data about one week ago, today we are at even lower prices, well under 80 dollars per barrel.

The question is: what generates these trends? Obviously, there are financial factors of all kinds that tend to create fluctuations. But, in the end, what determines prices is the interplay of demand and offer. If prices are too high, people can’t afford to buy; that’s what we call “demand destruction”. If prices are too low, then it is offer that is destroyed. Simply, producers can’t sell their products at a loss; not for a long time, at least. So there is a range of prices which are possible for oil: too high, and customers can’t buy, too low, and companies can’t sell. Indeed, if you look at historical prices, you see that when they went over something like 120 $/barrel (present dollars) the result was a subsequent recession and the collapse of the economy.

Ultimately, it is the cost of production that generates the lower price limit. Here, we get into the core of the problem. As you see from the price chart above, up to about the year 2000, there was no problem for producers to make a profit selling oil at around 20 dollars per barrel. Then something changed that caused the prices to rise up. That something has a name: it is depletion.

Depletion doesn’t mean that we run out of oil. Absolutely not. There is still plenty of oil to extract in the world. Depletion means that we gradually consume our resources and – as you can imagine – we tend to extract and produce first the least expensive resources. So, as depletion gradually goes on, we are left with more expensive resources to extract. And, if extracting costs more, then the market prices must increase: as I said, nobody wants to sell at a loss. And here we have the problem. Below, you can see is a chart that shows the costs of production of oil for various regions of the world. (From an article by Hall and Murphy on The Oil Drum)

Of course, these data are to be taken with caution. But there are other, similar, estimates, including a 2012 report by Goldman and Sachs, where you can read that most recent developments need at least 120 $/barrel to be profitable. Here is a slide from that report.

So, you see that, with the present prices, a good 10% of the oil presently produced is produced at a loss. If prices were to go back to values considered “normal” just 10 years ago, around 40 $/barrel, then we would lose profitability for around half of the world’s production. Production won’t collapse overnight: a good fraction of the cost of production derives from the initial investment in an oil field. So, once the field has been developed, it keeps producing, even though the profits may not repay the investment. But, in the long run, nobody wants to invest in an enterprise at so high risks of loss. Eventually, production must go down: there will still be oil that could be, theoretically, extracted, but that we won’t be able to afford to extract. This is the essence of the concept of depletion.

The standard objection, at this point, is about technology. People say, “yes, but technology will lower costs of extraction and everything will be fine again”. Well, I am afraid that it is not so simple. There are limits to what that technology can do. Let me show you something:

That object you see at the top of the image is a chunk of shale. It is the kind of rock out of which shale oil and shale gas can be extracted. But, as you can imagine, it is not easy. You can’t pump oil out of shales; the oil is there, but it is locked into the rock. To extract it, you must break the rock down into small pieces; fracture it (this is where the term “fracking” comes from). And you see on the right an impression of the kind of equipment it takes. You can be sure that it doesn’t come cheap. And that’s not all: once you start fracking, you have to keep on fracking. The decline rate of a fracking well is very rapid; we are talking about something like a loss of 80% in three years. And that’s expensive, too. Note, by the way, that we are speaking of the cost of production. The market price is another matter and it is perfectly possible for the industry to have to produce at a loss, if they were too enthusiastic about investing in these new resources. It is what’s happening for shale gas in the US; too much enthusiasm on the part of investors has created a problem of overproduction and prices too low to repay the costs of extraction.

So, producing this kind of resources, the so called “new oil” is a complex and expensive task. Surely technology can help reduce costs, but think about that: how exactly can it reduce the energy that it takes to break a rock into fine dust? Are you going to hammer on it with a smartphone? Are you going to share a photo of it on Facebook? Are you going to run it through a 3D printer? The problem is that to break and mill a piece of rock takes energy and this energy has to come from somewhere.

Eventually, the fundamental point is that you have a balance between the energy invested and the energy returned. It takes energy to extract oil, we can say that it takes energy to produce energy. The ratio of the two energies is the “Net Energy Return” of the whole system, also known as EROI or EROEI (energy return of energy invested). Of course, you want this return to be as high as possible, but when you deal with non renewable resources, such as oil, the net energy return declines with time because of depletion. Let me show you some data.

As you see, the net energy return for crude oil (top left) declined from about 100 to around 10 over some 100 years (the value of 100 may be somewhat overestimated, but the trend remains the same). And with lower net energies, you get less and less useful energy from an oil well; as you can see in the image at the lower right. The situation is especially bad for the so called “new oil”, shale oil, biofuels, tar sands, and others. It is expected: these kinds of oil (or anyway combustible liquids) are the most expensive ones and they are being extracted today because we are running out of the cheap kinds. No wonder that prices must increase if production has to continue at the levels we are used to. Then, when the market realizes that prices are too high to be affordable, there is the opposite effect; prices go down to tell producers to stop producing a resource which is too expensive to sell.

So, we have a problem. It is a problem that appears in the form of sudden price jumps; up and down, but which is leading us gradually to a situation in which we won’t be able to produce as much oil as we are used to. The same is true for gas and I think that the present crisis in Europe, which is seen today mainly as a political one, ultimately has its origin in the gradual depletion of gas resources. We still have plenty of gas to produce, but it is becoming an expensive resource.  It is the same for coal, even though so far there we don’t see shortages; for coal, troubles come more from emissions and climate change; and that’s an even more serious problem than depletion. Coal may (perhaps) be considered abundant (or, at least, more abundant than other fossil resources) but it is not a solution to any problem.

In the end, we have problems that cannot be “solved” by trying to continue producing non renewable resources which in the long run are going to become too expensive. It is a physical problem, and cannot be solved by political or financial methods. The only possibility is to switch to resources which don’t suffer of depletion. That is, to renewable resources.

At this point, we should discuss what is the energy return of renewables and compare it to that of fossil fuels. This is a complex story and there is a lot of work being done on that. There are many uncertainties in the estimates, but I think it can be said that the “new renewables“, that is mainly photovoltaics and wind, have energy returns for the production of electrical energy which is comparable to that of the production of the same kind of energy from oil and gas. Maybe renewables still can’t match the return of fossil fuels but, while the energy return of fossil energy keeps declining, the return of renewables is increasing because of economies of scale and technological improvements. So, we are going to reach a crossing point at some moment (maybe we have already reached it) and, even in terms of market prices, the cost of renewable electric power is today already comparable to that of electric power obtained with fossil fuels.

The problem is that our society was built around the availability of cheap fossil fuels. We can’t simply switch to renewables such as photovoltaics, which can’t produce, for instance, liquid fuels for transportation. So, we need a new infrastructure to accommodate the new technologies, and that will be awfully expensive to create. We’ll have to try to do our best, but we cannot expect the energy transition – the “energiewende” – to be painless. On the other hand, if we don’t prepare for it, it will be worse.

So, to return to the subject of this hearing, we were discussing energy security for Europe. I hope I provided some data for you that show how security is ultimately related to supply and that we are having big problems with the supply of fossil energy right now. The problem can only increase in the future because of the gradual depletion of fossil resources. So, we need to think in terms of supplies which are not affected by this problem. As a consequence, it is vital for Europe’s energy security to invest in renewable energy. We shouldn’t expect miracles from renewables, but they will be immensely helpful in the difficult times ahead.

Let me summarize the points I made in this talk:

Thank you very much for your attention and if you want to know more, you can look at my website “Resource Crisis”. www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.com


Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of “Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet” (Chelsea Green 2014)





Still on Track for the Collapse of Modern Civilization

15 10 2014

Originally posted on Collapse of Industrial Civilization:

BeFunky_null_u1.jpg

Two recent pieces of scientific evidence really hammer home the predicament of modern industrial civilization, and they have to do with the fact that our globalized, just-in-time economic model is hopelessly wed to carbon-based energy. Once one understands this, then there can be no delusions about why we are on such a catastrophic trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. As was explained in a previous post, GDP is fundamentally and directly linked to CO2 emissions. Below, two graphs(click to go to source) illustrate this fact:

C02 emissions since 1850 (red); exponential growth (blue); cuts to hit climate target (dashed).

Graphic_PE_CoalUseIncreased

It’s not really about evil fossil fuel companies, although they do certainly exert enormous political clout and do conspire to protect their business model by doing such things as spreading doubt on climate change science, but as with all corporations, externalizing social and environmental costs is endemic to the profit system and the coercive forces of competition in capitalist markets.

Firstly, there is the graph submitted by…

View original 1,746 more words





Capitalism IS the Crisis….

26 04 2014

I heard this film mentioned by Derrick Jensen at the end of that podcast I mentioned in Why we are still screwed….. Thorium or no Thorium!

It’s a bit long at one hour forty minutes – why is it doco producers seem to think their films can’t be as good if they’re edited shorter?  Anyhow, I still think it’s compulsory viewing….  especially for Australians who can have the advantage of seeing where Canada’s Harper government took its people.  Remember, we are just a couple of years behind, and Abbott could easily be Harper’s clone.





In Defence of Inaction

21 04 2014

Dave Pollard

Dave Pollard

To say I love Dave Pollard’s writings is an understatement.  As is, that we think as one……  so here is another guest post by Dave for your enjoyment.  Is that inappropriate wording perhaps?  Does anyone enjoy admitting we’re shafted…?  Is this “giving up” a new movement maybe..?  Hot on the heels of Mike Ruppert doing himself in – the ultimate “I give up” action – to the admission of defeat from Paul Kingnorth, David Suzuki now saying it’s too late, let alone all the Near Term Extinctionists like Guy McPherson predicting the ultimate apocalypse, a growing number of activists are calling it a day, deciding that we have to shift from global activism to local.  And I agree too.  But you probably knew that already…..  it’s time to hunker down.

In Defence of Inaction

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization’s End — Dave Pollard

I have, of late, had a falling out with many of my fellow ‘progressives’, similar I suppose to that of Paul Kingsnorth, who is being savaged by Naomi Klein and others for giving up on the environmental movement and non-local activism, and by humanists for losing faith in our species’ capacity for innovation and change.

I should say at the outset that I agree that our political and economic and legal and educational and social systems are dreadful, unfair, teetering, and totally inadequate to our needs. I agree that this is a world of horrific inequality, inequitable and unjust privilege, massive suffering, and outrageous patriarchy. I agree that corporatism and corruption and propagandist media are rampant and destructive and destabilizing. I agree that militarized police and torture prisons and drone killing and massive global surveillance are repugnant and a fundamental threat to our personal safety and security and the very principles upon which our nations are founded.

And I fully acknowledge that the fact I’m white, male, boomer generation and relatively wealthy provides me with enormous privilege compared to others, including relative freedom of movement, freedom from fear of harassment and assault, and greater social, political and economic opportunity.

But when I hear arguments that “we need” to stand up for our ‘inherent’ rights and freedoms, and wrest ‘control’ of the levers of power from the obscenely wealthy elite, and denounce and protest injustice and inequality, and acknowledge and renounce our role as privileged oppressors, as the first steps to a true social revolution and political and economic reform, leading, somehow, to a radical redistribution of wealth and power, and a more just society, I am reduced to despair.

I used to believe people, and perhaps some other creatures, had ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’. I believed that someone was in control. I believed there were answers to the predicaments we face.

But now I realize that there are no rights or freedoms. The concept of rights and freedoms is a sop that the rich and powerful of this world use to appease the fury and frustration of the poor and disenfranchised. The ‘granting’ of rights and freedoms means nothing, because they can be and are taken away whenever those in power choose to do so, and are simply ignored when they interfere with the exercise of power or accumulation of wealth by those who allowed them to be granted.

We don’t have freedom of expression, or speech, or assembly: under the current surveillance state I can be stopped, arrested, held indefinitely and incommunicado, tortured, ‘disappeared’ or simply killed, by a drone or in a secret gulag, whenever someone in power decides I’m a threat to that power.

Likewise, there is no ‘upward mobility’ for just about any demographic segment of our human population worldwide; most people are trapped, socially and economically, right where they are, no matter what may happen to the place where they live.

There is no true democracy, anywhere: the real decisions are made in secret meetings between bought politicians (many of them in power fraudulently or due to gerrymandering and other corruptions of the ‘democratic’ process), who represent only their rich and powerful donors, and the bankers, lawyers and corporate executives. The ‘laws’ and ‘regulations’ are just smokescreens to make it look as if the people’s interests are being considered.

There are no rights of recourse against corporate abuses: most industries are oligopolies, and corporate law is designed to protect them and their wealthy shareholders and executives from the wrath of outraged citizens, while enabling these corporations to sue citizens who pose any threat to their profits or ‘leadership’.

All that’s happened over the past three decades is that the illusion of rights and freedoms has largely disappeared, as those with wealth and power ratchet up the rhetoric that militarized police, torture prisons, ubiquitous surveillance and the oppression of dissent are ‘necessary’ for public safety and security (especially the safety and security of the rich and powerful).

There are no rights or freedoms. There is only power, and its exercised in the interest of further enriching the rich and further concentrating power.

I used to be outraged and angry about all this, but now I’m just letting it go. It’s just too easy to see this as a moral struggle, as a fight against pathology, greed, and tyranny. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think everyone’s really trying to do what they believe is best, not only for their loved ones but for everyone. I know some of these people, and their stubborn, destructive wrong-headedness is completely understandable to me (from their strange but deeply-held worldview).

Increasing concentration of power doesn’t mean that there is an ‘elite’ in control of everything in our society. Vast wealth and power does not translate to control, especially in a world where all our systems are collapsing simultaneously: our economic systems, running on the fumes of belief in perpetual industrial growth; our nearly-exhausted energy and resource systems, utterly dependent on ample and cheap oil (one barrel of oil replaces 12 person-years of labour, and we currently use 100 million barrels per day); and our climate systems, which have long passed the tipping point to catastrophic change comparable to that of the ‘ice ages’ (though in the opposite temperature direction).

The rich and powerful are as much prisoners of these massive, complex, crumbling systems, as much cogs in the machine, as the rest of us: they just get better wages and benefits than the rest of the inmates, and will until the systems fall apart, at which time they’ll be no better off than anyone else.

No one is in control. The enemy, if there is one, is not a cabal of elites, but a set of co-dependent collapsing systems that every one of us has a vested interest in trying (insanely) to perpetuate. Systems we have all helped co-create and are almost all dependent on.

David Korowicz, in his study On the Cusp of Collapse, explains how our massively complex global human systems are far beyond the control of any coordinated group of people:

Our daily lives are dependent upon the coherence of thousands of direct interactions, which are themselves dependent upon trillions more interactions between things, businesses, institutions and individuals across the world. Following just one track; each morning I have coffee near where I work. The woman who serves me need not know who picked the berries, who moulded the polymer for the coffee maker, how the municipal system delivered the water to the café, how the beans made their journey or who designed the mug. The captain of the ship that transported the beans would have had no knowledge of who provided the export credit insurance for the shipment, who made the steel for the hull, or the steps in the complex processes that allow him the use of satellite navigation. And the steel-maker need not have known who built the pumps for the iron-ore mine, or how the oxygen for the furnace was refined.

We cannot hope to ‘fix’ these systems through political or economic or legal or educational reform, or putting some more democratically-minded group ‘in control’ of them. Fighting for possession of the steering wheel of a car careering over a cliff cannot produce useful change. Even trying to bring down our economic systems before they do even more damage is probably futile: It’s unlikely to significantly accelerate, mitigate or delay the inevitable collapse, and I’m not sure its effect on catastrophic climate change would be substantial either. There is simply no point trying to change any of these systems; it’s a waste of time, and, as Buddha said “Our problem is we think we have time.” But some would insist we try anyway, so at least “we can say we tried”. I think that’s a pathetic argument.

So here we sit, all of us, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, with no real ‘rights’ or ‘freedoms’, no hope of ‘reforming’ massive, self-reinforcing and entrenched systems utterly out of our control, coming apart because they are totally unsustainable, and no credible knowledge of what might work to even mitigate the imminent and catastrophic end of the industrial ‘growth’ economy, the end of the all-too-brief age of abundant cheap energy, and the end of a short few millennia of astonishingly stable climate.

The question we must each ask ourselves, I think, is this:  If we acknowledge that our systems and hence our civilization cannot be reformed or ‘saved’, what can we do now that will make a real difference, for the future, in our communities and for those we love?

The insanely rational answer to this question, I think, is (a) probably nothing, and (b) it’s too early to know.

So if I seem impatient or annoyed when you ask me to be outraged or supportive in your movement to reform civilization, I’m sorry. I think it’s too late.

I’m in the process of writing a book of stories of how all of this might play out, just one scenario, the story of, in the short term, a Great Migration of billions of people towards the poles in search of livable habitat (what an amazing, terrifying and liberating journey that could be!), and, in the longer term, the blossoming of thousands of local communities, new and unimaginably diverse, self-sufficient, joyful and utterly alive human cultures, whose total impact on the planet will be, due to our much smaller numbers and minimal energy and technology resources, pretty insignificant. I need to write such a new story to be able to begin to let go of the old, civilized one.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe there’s more I could (I’ve stopped saying “should”) be doing: learning new essential skills and capacities, helping in the process of rediscovering how to build and live in community together, healing myself and helping others heal from the ravages of civilization’s innumerable, constant and monstrous stresses, and just trying to live a joyful, exemplary, modest and graceful life. I may get around to these things. But for now I’m just writing, watching, reflecting, trying to figure it all out.

It’s too early and too late, I think, to do anything more.





Looks like Guy McPherson was seriously wrong….

12 04 2014

After debating with Dave Kimble for several months over the issue of whether we are at a tipping point, it appears he may have been right all along:  there’s no way we are even going to reach +2ºC above 1990 temperatures.  Looks like McPherson’s forecasts of Near Term Human Extinction was highly overcooked……  Why do I say this?  Read on…….

dkimble

Dave Kimble

The IPCC detailed report is out and, as Dave predicted, the temperature response for RCP2.6 is +1.5°C, range 1.1 – 1.8 by 2045.  Thereafter they show the temperature remaining constant or microscopically getting slightly lower –  in the modelling I’ve seen, it was measurably getting lower by 2100.

So no “tipping point” according to IPCC, not even for the highest scenario, RCP8.5.

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg’s latest article is a game changer in my opinion.  It completely agrees with Dave:

 

 

The Likely Effect of Oil Limits

The likely effect of oil limits–one way or the other–is to bring down the economy, and because of this bring an end to pretty much all carbon emissions (not just oil) very quickly. There are several ways this could happen:

  • High oil prices – we saw what these could do in 2008.  They nearly sank the financial system. If they return, central banks have already done most of what they can to “fix” the situation. They are likely to be short of ammunition the next time around.

  • Low oil prices – this is the current problem. Oil companies are cutting back on new expenditures because they cannot make money on a cash flow basis on shale plays and on other new oil drilling. Oil companies can’t just keep adding debt, so they are doing less investment. I talked about this in Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Less oil means either a rebound in prices or not enough oil produced to go around. Either way, we are likely to see massive recession and falling world GDP.

  • Huge credit problems, such as happened in 2008, only worse. Oil drilling would stop within a few years, because oil prices would drop too low, and stay too low, without lots of credit to prop up prices of commodities of all types.

  • Rapidly rising interest rates, as QE reaches its limits. (QE for the United States was put in place at the time of the 2008 crisis, and has been continued since then.) Rising interest rates lead to higher needed tax rates and high monthly payments for homes and cars. The current QE-induced bubble in stock, land, and home prices is also likely to break, sending prices down again.

  • End of globalization, as countries form new alliances, such as Russia-China-Iran. The US is making false claims that we can get along without some parts of the world, because we have so much natural gas and oil. This is nonsense. Once groups of countries start pulling in opposite directions, the countries that have been using a disproportionate share of oil (particularly Europe, the United States, and Japan) will find themselves in deep trouble.

  • Electric grid failures, because subsidies for renewables leave companies that sell fossil-fuel powered electricity with too little profit. The current payment system for renewables needs to be fixed to be fair to companies that generate electricity using fossil fuels. We cannot operate our economy on renewables alone, in part, because the quantity is far too small. Creation of new renewables and maintenance of such renewables is also fossil fuel dependent.

Given the choice between economic collapse and runaway climate change, collapse is the pick.  Collapse, however, brings surprising results according to Gail.  Have a look at this chart of hers showing Peak ALL energy happening next year:

tverberg-estimate-of-future-energy-productionSee that pale blue strip at the top?  It’s energy produced by renewables.  By 2035, it is half the height of what it is today.  And the purple nuclear strip is maybe no more than a quarter of today’s…….  ALL high tech ‘solutions’ require complex systems driven by cheap and abundant fossil fuels.  And the demise of cheap and abundant fossil fuels is exactly what will bring all this complexity to its knees…..  If you want energy security for yourself using renewables, I urge you to waste no time, do it now…  Gail further states:

The IPCC’s Message Isn’t Really Right 

We are bumping up against limits in many ways not modelled in the IPCC report. The RCP2.6 Scenario comes closest of the scenarios shown in providing an indication of our future situation. Clearly the climate is changing and will continue to change in ways that our planners never considered when they built cities and took out long-term loans. This is a problem not easily solved.

One of the big issues is that energy supplies seem to be leaving us, indirectly through economic changes that we have little control over. The IPCC report is written from the opposite viewpoint:  we humans are in charge and need to decide to leave energy supplies. The view is that the economy, despite our energy problems, will return to robust growth. With this robust growth, our big problem will be climate change because of the huge amount of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuel burning.

Unfortunately, the real situation is that the laws of physics, rather than humans, are in charge. Basically, as economies grow, it takes increasing complexity to fix problems, as Joseph Tainter explained in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Dissipative structures provide this ever-increasing complexity through higher “energy rate density” (explained in the Chaisson article linked above –).

We need to understand what are really up against, if we are to think rationally about the future. It would be helpful if more people tried to understand the physics of the situation, even if it is a difficult subject. While we can’t really expect to “fix” the situation, we can perhaps better understand what “solutions” are likely to make the situation worse. Such knowledge will also provide a better context for understanding how climate change fits in with other limits we are reaching. Climate change is certainly not the whole problem, but it may still play a significant role.

For the whole picture, I can’t recommend reading the original enough……  it may well be the most important article Gail has ever written….